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‘Food is love’: Council speaker unveils multi-pronged plan to increase food equity

August 1, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick

The implementation of food court-style cafeterias is just one of the strategies improving the way students eat, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said Thursday from a Brooklyn school known for its exceptional nutritional programming.

Johnson joined Councilmember Rafael Espinal at P.S./I.S. 89, Cypress Hill Community School — the first in Brooklyn to have its own rooftop community garden — to announce a multi-pronged plan of policy proposals to combat food inequity, as outlined in a new report.

“Access to adequate nutritious food is a human right,” Johnson told a room full of colleagues, educators and food equity advocates. “This principle isn’t just for developing countries,” he went on — it’s relevant right here in New York City, “one of the richest cities in the world.”

There have been great strides, the speaker said, including at Cypress Hill Community School, where students see fresh food they’ve grown in the school’s greenhouse being served in the cafeteria, and in schools like Midwood and Brooklyn Tech high schools where the lunchrooms have been transformed from a traditional cafeteria to one that mirrors a shopping mall’s food court.

The inviting layout, coupled with the shorter wait times, has led to a spike in lunchtime participation across the city, Johnson said.

According to an analysis by Community Food Advocates, in schools that received a lunchroom makeover, lunch participation increased more than 30 percent from February 2017 to December 2018. In one Brooklyn high school participation went from 20 percent to 40 percent — and, as wait time for food decreased, students’ intake of fruits and vegetables increased dramatically.

“We already have plans to renovate 26 additional schools, and we will fight for the city to expand these food courts into even more schools,” Johnson said.

The speaker’s full report outlines the current hunger problems, including a lack of access to healthy and affordable food for New Yorkers in low-income communities and communities of color — and offers solutions to change it. First among them is the empowering of the city’s Office of Food Policy — a bare-bones office, Johnson said, that has little power in its current form. With support, he thinks it could help end food inequity across the five boroughs.

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Johnson’s plan also builds upon already successful initiatives like Health Bucks, nutrition-based curriculum, and the remodeled cafeterias. It also pinpoints some of the council’s demands, like improvements to school food programs, making sure every neighborhood has outlets providing affordable healthy food, and creating more community gardens like the one at Cypress Hills Community School.

The council also hopes to better address college student hunger, Johnson said, stressing that a recent survey of 22,000 CUNY students across 19 campuses found that 48 percent of participants said they experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days. The term is used to describe a lack of access to affordable, healthy food.

And they’re certainly not alone, the speaker said.

“Over one million New Yorkers are food-insecure,” Johnson stressed. Approximately 1.54 million New Yorkers rely on SNAP — the country’s primary food support program, under threat of cuts by the Trump administration, he said.

Johnson called on an expansion of the $1 million already allocated in the 2020 budget to fund a pilot program to increase food access to CUNY students.

“Growing up in East New York, fresh food was hard to come by,” Espinal told the room. The councilmember recounted growing their own fresh food in summer months.

“The majority of kids across New York City did not have the same opportunity and, to this day, most continue to be deprived of this same experience. Sixteen percent of New Yorkers go to bed hungry each night — and nearly 20 percent of them are Brooklynites. They face food insecurity more than any other borough.”

The City Council will also consider legislation which would create an Office of Urban Agriculture. This new office, Johnson said, would ensure that the ecological, economic and health benefits of urban agriculture are considered in city planning moving forward.

“Food is something that brings us together,” Johnson said. “At its most basic, food is what we need as humans to survive and thrive every day. But, of course, food is more than just a necessity. It sustains us physically, emotionally and economically. Food is love.”

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